Whitesburg KY

Lawsuit over planned prison set aside, but may come back

A lawsuit filed to stop a prison from being built in Letcher County has been dismissed “without prejudice,” meaning it can be refiled if the Bureau of Prisons resumes its effort to build here.

Attorneys for the Department of Justice and the Abolitionist Law Center agreed to the terms of the dismissal. Marianne Cufone, an attorney with Green Justice, a New Orleans-based environmental justice group, said last month that her clients agreed to dismiss the complaint because they got everything they were seeking, and there was no point in continuing the suit.

“It could come back at a later time, but we’ll be watching,” Cufone said.

A federal judge originally dismissed the suit “with prejudice,” meaning it could not be refiled. The order was changed after the parties asked that the order be corrected to say “without prejudice.”

The suit was dismissed after the Bureau of Prisons voluntarily withdrew its Record of Decision giving the go-ahead to build the prison at Roxana. The judge’s order allowing the lawsuit to be refiled if the Bureau does not do what the plaintiffs want appears to be the last nail in the coffin of local leaders’ 15-year effort to have the prison built here.

Elwood Cornett, who has led the Letcher County Planning Commission in its efforts to get a prison, said U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers said when the Record of Decision was withdrawn, that it would be revived.

“I would pay a lot of attention to what Hal’s words were,” Cornett said Tuesday night. “I don’t know if I’d say (I’m) optimistic, but I don’t think Hal would say that if he didn’t believe it.”

Rogers obtained federal earmarks of about $510 million for construction of the prison at Roxana, and President Barack Obama signed a law authorizing the project in 2016. It was originally billed as a way to reduce prison overcrowding and create jobs in Letcher County.

However the prison ran into opposition from another local group called the Letcher County Local Governance Project, made up mostly of young people and people involved in the arts community, and from a group apparently from Texas known as the Campaign to Stop Toxic Prisons.

In January of 2017, opponents of the prison gained a powerful, if unlikely, ally when Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. Trump opposes the prison and has sought to reclaim the $510 million allocated for it for use in immigration enforcement. Congress has rebuffed his attempts to take the money back, but his administration has continued its attempts to try to stop construction of the prison.

Last November, the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh, Penn., and several inmates in the federal prison system sued the Bureau of Prisons in U.S. Court of the District of Columbia, seeking to stop construction, but none of the local residents were part of that suit. An amended complaint was filed earlier this year, however, included a newly formed group calling itself Friends of Lilley Cornett Woods and the North Fork Watershed. A disclaimer was later added to the group’s web site saying it is not affiliated with the Eastern Kentucky University, which owns Lilley Cornett Woods and has a foundation account in the name of Friends of Lilley Cornett Woods.

The dismissal without prejudice could achieve the goal of prison opponents, including President Trump. While Congressman Rogers has told supporters repeatedly that the prison is still on track, the court action this week indicates otherwise. The dismissal was filed September 4, but there have been no news releases so far from Rogers’s office.

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